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Big Dairy Is About to Flood America’s School Lunches With Milk

Consider the lunch lady: long-suffering, warm-hearted. Or maybe fed-up and impatient. Always hair-netted. But how did she spend her summer? This past July, chances are she (lunch gentlemen are a rarer sight) was in Las Vegas for the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association. There, in the convention center at the Mandalay Bay hotel, thousands of cooks, cafeteria managers, and cashiers, toting swag bags in slow-moving waves, browsed a supermarket of brands—Tony’s pizza, Campbell’s soup, Cheez-It crackers.

Some purveyors splashed out for full-scale culinary demos, and it was during one of these, at 8:30 a.m., with an overhead camera broadcasting a gleaming cooktop onto a giant screen, that Food Network chef Jason Smith gushed about his favorite recipes from the dairy cooperative Land O’Lakes Inc. Smith, known for loud outfits such as the red shirt and black vest with tropical flowers he wore that morning, was a school cafeteria manager in Kentucky before he hit reality-TV stardom. In a homey drawl, he let the packed ballroom know he hadn’t forgotten how to stretch a school budget.

“Making your cheese sauce from scratch—you all know what that goes like,” he said, drawing laughs at the punch line: “You’ve got burnt cheese sauce.” Smith produced a bag of Land O’Lakes Ultimate White Cheese Sauce Blend and confided, “When you buy this, you don’t have to worry.” He snipped a corner of the bag and poured the contents into a bowl, then heated it up. A gooey sauce materialized. “Girl, get your head in that bowl, and lick ’er clean when it’s done!” he said, to whoops. The sales pitch was as thick as the sauce, and it kept on flowing. Over the course of an hour, Smith showed off a “cheesy cowboy meatball hoagie,” a Cuban mac-and-cheese sandwich, and a cheesy pizza salad. “If you’re not using them,” he said of Land O’Lakes’ “wonderful, wonderful” products, “you’re crazy.”

The American lunchroom war has taken another turn. Flaring first with the ketchup-as-a-vegetable controversy of the Reagan era, it’s raged anew since 2010, when the Obama administration backed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rewrite the nutrition standards of the $13.6 billion National School Lunch Program for the first time in 15 years. The department soon required more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and lower sodium levels. Chocolate milk, if it was served, had to be fat-free. In many ways this was a frontal assault on dairy: Cheese, especially the American kind popular on burgers, is high in sodium. The new rules even told schools to make water available with every meal—after decades when the only beverage kids were routinely offered was milk.

A week after his appointment was confirmed in 2017, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a stocky ex-Georgia governor who made his fortune in the grain business and was once a consultant to milk producers, sat down for lunch with grade schoolers in Leesburg, Va., to announce an easing of the restrictions. Higher-fat chocolate milk was back, along with more white breads and pizza. “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Perdue told the assembled reporters.